About 400 students and a few villagers protested in Phnom Penh on Sunday to demand the release of two men arrested last week after a protest over a land dispute in Kampot province, with authorities claiming that the demonstration was organized by a politician who had purchased some of the land.
Ly Kemthuy, 34, and Ly Kemheang, 47, were arrested in Chhuk district’s Decho Aphivat commune for obstructing officials on Tuesday, the day after they returned from a protest at Freedom Park demanding that 816 families in the commune receive a plot they were promised on a 1,337-hectare social land concession.
On Sunday, a group composed mostly of students from the University Youth Alliance gathered again at Freedom Park to demand their release, said Chhoeuy Bunthoeun, 33, one of the student leaders.
“We joined the protest today to ask for the release of the two jailed people because they did not commit a crime, they just joined a protest,” he said. “We will continue to protest forever if the authorities do not release the two people.”
One of the villagers, Min Noeun, 57, said she joined the protest because she had been stripped of a 1.5-hectare plot of land inside the social land concession.
“The local authorities measured my plot of land for the disabled and military families, but I have never dared to protest because I am afraid they will arrest and jail me,” she said.
Despite vowing to remain in the park until the arrested villagers were released, the protesters left by the evening. City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said the group had been told to end the protest, which was organized without first notifying municipal authorities.
“Whether they protest today or tomorrow, we would not allow them to do it,” Mr. Dimanche said. “They should have been arrested, because they protested illegally.”
Heng Vantha, deputy Kampot provincial governor, said the recent protests were deceptive and that his authorities were in fact dividing up the concession for the families who are entitled to a plot, and had nearly completed the process.
He said he believed the students organized the protests because they were ordered to by League for Democracy Party President Khem Veasna, who he said had bought 100 hectares of the land in the area about a year ago and was using the villagers to claim it for him.
“Those people are very bad because they bought land on the social land concession and have collected villagers and students to protest in order to take the land for them,” Mr. Vantha said.
Reached by telephone, Mr. Veasna denied Mr. Vantha’s claims that he purchased land on the concession but said he had sent the students to support a protest organized by the villagers, who he described as fans of his party’s radio station.
“First of all, I want to say that I do not have any land there. Secondly, I did not organize that demonstration,” Mr. Veasna said.
(Additional reporting by Alex Willemyns)